New Investigative Team Reports on Why Housing Funds Fail to Help Haiti’s Neediest

Dec 102010

It’s been nearly a year since Léogâne, Haiti, just fifteen miles from the epicenter of January’s earthquake, was reduced to rubble. Non-governmental organizations have pledged the funds to build more than 28,000 transitional shelters for local residents, but so far only a fraction of them have actually been constructed. Thousands of residents are still stranded in makeshift tent camps.

This month, a team of investigative reporters I’m training managed to expose, in a front-page report in Haiti’s only daily newspaper, some of the reasons for the delays. The story, entitled, ‘Léogâne, Ten Months after the Earthquake,’ marks the first investigative report since my Knight International Journalism Fellowship began in late July. The team found that delays were largely a result of a weakened, ineffective government and a controversial plan for deciding who gets a shelter.

To seasoned journalists, this was a natural investigative piece waiting to happen. But investigative journalism in Haiti has historically been the exception. In the aftermath of the quake, journalists are struggling just to get out the day’s news. Like everyone else, they are maneuvering in a post-disaster environment. They’ve had to face a cholera outbreak, a hurricane, flooding, and political upheaval over the recent electoral vote. Many days they are hard-pressed to cover daily events, let alone work on an investigative piece.

But with billions of dollars pledged to assist Haiti, the situation is ripe for abuse. I came here to strengthen the Haitian media and help reporters develop the skills they need to track the flow of aid in Haiti.

Our group took four separate trips from Port-au-Prince to Léogâne, 25 miles south. We had to traverse a shameful stretch of road overrun with rotting garbage that’s gooey even in the dry season. Herds of pigs line the roads to eat the garbage. Eventually the road clears and it’s a straight shot except for the mammoth-size potholes.

Their front-page story revealed that shelters were often going to people who own land and not to the most vulnerable or needy residents. Those who did receive houses often flipped the units for a profit. Many of the units that were built were immediately sold. The story also questioned whether such problems had really been resolved, as some officials suggested.

I can’t say for sure who smiled widest when the article appeared. For the first time, we could look past the frustrations and challenges—and see the progress. Only two reporters had ever done anything resembling an investigative report.

The lead journalist appeared on a local radio station and spoke about why progress has been so slow. I’ve been invited to speak on this same show about my fellowship, and explain why training journalists to be investigative reporters is so important in Haiti’s reconstruction period – and beyond. Perhaps the most important effect, though, is that these reporters understand the significance of what they’ve just done. Already they're investigating their next topic, eager to blaze a new trail for journalism, and ultimately for their country.